The Entry Level #36 Page 2
I typically avoid active noise-canceling headphones. I almost invariably forget to turn them off and wind up quickly and prematurely draining their batteries. Then I become annoyedwith myself and the 'phones. And in general, I've found that noise cancellation is unnecessaryeven when walking along crowded New York City streets or riding the noisy subway, music alone provides all the noise canceling I typically need. And at its worst, noise cancellation produces a hiss, buzz, or other coloration that interferes with my enjoyment of the music. What's the point of noisy noise cancellation?
Unlike many noise-canceling headphones, however, PSB's M4U 2s also work in passive mode, without batterieswhen the batteries die, your music doesn't. A three-position switch on the right earcup selects the operating mode: Off (passive), On (with amplification), and ANC (with amplification and active noise canceling). PSB specifies a battery life of 55 hours, but I suspect that's a conservative estimate. After weeks of use, and despite my typical forgetfulness, I haven't yet had to change the batteries. To my surprise, I've found myself most often listening to the PSBs with ANC engaged. There is a faint hiss, but it has never interfered with the music, and I've enjoyed the quieter-overall backgrounds, especially at home (where a construction crew is presently chipping away at our old red-brick exterior) and in the office (where overhead vents constantly whir). I haven't traveled by plane while I've had the PSBs, but I don't doubt they'd be an outstanding in-flight audio accessory.
The M4U 2s provided the most consistently thrilling headphone-listening experiences I've ever enjoyed. Music was reproduced with remarkable impact, and freed from the space between my ears to seemingly emanate from outside my head. The effect was sometimes unnervingespecially in the office. The office is no place for jump factor, and the M4U 2s produced jump factor galore. It was almost too much to take. In fact, there were several instances when music became so engrossing I had to remove the M4U 2s from my head.
For instance, Lou Harrison's dynamic percussion piece, Song of Quetzalcoatl, from William Winant's Five American Percussion Pieces (320kbps MP3, Poon Village PV007), became a hallucinogenic, mind-altering trip. If you like roller coasters, scary movies, or other forms of benign masochism, you want to hear this music through these headphones. I'm listening again now. There is remarkable physicality to each snare and tom-tom hit. Wood blocks are given honest roundness, resonance, and warmth. Chimes, rattles, and guiro each have appropriate brilliance, clarity, and richness. Attack transients have eye-blinking speed. Decays are long and clean, and gradually fade away to nothing.
The M4U 2s were neither laid-back nor polite. Listening to compressed pop recordings, such as Jenny Hval's excellent Innocence Is Kinky (CD, Rune Grammofon RCD 2142), I felt their highs were a bit overly aggressive and their mids somewhat too forward, so that vocal sibilants and the sounds of fingers sliding across electric-guitar strings were unnecessarily pronounced. But the space! The impact! I loved the PSBs' overall physicality and their ability to preserve recorded ambience. With hot recordings, I switched to passive mode for a tamer, softer sound; with well-recorded material, I switched back to ANC and prepared myself for an immersive, thrilling listening experience. I got it. Every time.
Sennheiser Momentum over-the-ear headphones
Sennheiser is not new to the headphone business (footnote 2). The company was founded in 1945, and, though its first product was a tube voltmeter, by the mid-1950s Sennheiser had become seriously invested in headphone research and development. By the early 1970s, due in large part to the success of its first open-back headphone, the HD 414, Sennheiser had become the world's preeminent maker of headphones. Today, Sennheiser 'phones are not only well known but, more important, universally respectedspotted as often in recording studios as in listening rooms, in DJ booths as in rock clubs, and on city streets as in Stereophile's pages. Since its release in 1998, the famed HD 600 open-back headphone, a John Atkinson favorite, has held a firm place in Class A of our "Recommended Components."
The Momentum ($349.99), however, is something new for Sennheisera closed-back, compact, over-the-ear design, with a clean and understated look equal parts classic and modern (footnote 1). The 'phones come packed with an attractive travel case, a stereo-to-minijack adapter, and two 1.4m cordsone with a rotatable plug and robust inline microphone control, one with a straight plug and no mike control.
Like other retro-styled headphonesEskuché's popular 33, 45, and Control models immediately come to mindthe Momentums superficially resemble the headphones typically found in classrooms, libraries, radio stations, and hi-fi advertisements of the 1970s. On closer inspection, however, they reveal levels of quality and sophistication uncommon to audio accessories. Small, oval earcups slide smoothly along a perfectly formed headband of stainless steel, the ridge of which is capped in carefully stitched leather. The cushioned earpads are covered in soft yet durable sheep hair leather; with the Momentums, the feel of earpads against ears is luxurious, almost sumptuous. According to Sennheiser's consumer-products specialist, Scott Houston, the leather not only looks and feels good, it also provides passive noise reduction of external sounds.
Albeit not to the level of the PSB M4U 2s, the isolation from external noise of the Momentums' output was very good, and while I was charmed by the leather touches, I had trouble achieving a consistently secure and comfortable fit on my head. I attribute some of this difficulty to my largish, plastic-framed Tom Ford (hipster) glasses, which almost invariably interfere with my headphone listening, but the Momentums were also to blame. (To be sure, I tried them without my glasses. Result: Totally blind, still in pain.) The inner cavity of each earpad measures approximately 2" by 1.5", which is half an inch less than the 2.5" length of the average human pinna. After weeks of listening and despite endless fussing, I haven't figured out whether I prefer to rest the Momentums high or low on my ears, or if it makes a difference.
The problem is helped somewhat by the Momentum's unusually light weight (6.5oz), but exacerbated by the narrow width of its headband. In its normal resting position, the space enclosed by the headband's curve is just 6" across. On my head, if not carefully adjusted, the Sennheisers felt like a really plush vise. With the stars perfectly aligned, I could listen comfortably for up to 35 minutesabout the length of my commute to or from workbefore having to remove the Momentums.
On freeing my head from the Momentums' firm grip, I usually felt significant physical reliefbut I invariably missed their sound, which was marked by a careful balance of warmth with detail: exactly what I want from my music-playback gear. The Sennheisers couldn't quite match the PSBs' drama, scale, and awesome sense of space, but they were nevertheless involving, if in a much subtler way. Whereas the M4U 2s impressed from the start with their bold presence and force, the Momentums were more seductive, quietly drawing me deeper and deeper into the music. The more I listened, the more I enjoyed them. By the end of the review period, my appreciation had turned into downright love.
The Momentums' sweet, gentle highs made listening to Jenny Hval's Innocence Is Kinky, and other compressed pop music, an easy treat. Better than that, the Momentums' warm, textured midrange and overall natural tone allowed me to appreciate aspects of the music I'd previously missed. In "I Got No Strings," the abrasive, spitty madness and desperation in Hval's voice were still present, but now, so were subtle fluctuations in her held vowels, making the words themselves easier than ever to understand and enjoy.
For a time, I thought the Momentums' delicate highs and warm mids were particularly suited to jazzI doubt I've ever heard Ornette Coleman's "Lonely Woman," from his The Shape of Jazz to Come (16/44.1 ALAC from CD, Atlantic 5182636) sound more graceful, heartfelt, or articulatebut their tonal qualities proved equally beneficial to all the music I played. Yesterday evening, I thought I could smell the cigarette smoke coming from Archy Marshall's snarling mouth as he exhaled between verses of "Easy Easy," the opening track of King Krule's 6 Feet Beneath the Moon (320kbps MP3, XL Recordings, XLDA618). Earlier today, I swore I could see Chan Marshall slowly dancing with Willis Earl Beale as they traded verses in Beale's soulful "Coming Through," from Nobody Knows (320kbps MP3, HXC Recordings, HXC004). And currently, the impassioned "Stormur," from Sigur Rós's excellent new Kveikur (CD, XL Recordings XL606), sounds especially goodappropriately thrilling, spacious, and richly textured.
Combining true high-fidelity sound, outstanding build quality, and great looks, the Sennheiser Momentums are an exquisite hi-fi component. Perhaps they'll prove a better fit for you.
The return of true hi-fi
Three days after Bob Lefsetz posted his blog praising Audeze at the expense of Beats, The Economist offered a more positive view of the Beats brand and its influence on young headphone enthusiasts: "Since consumers have been persuaded, largely by Beats, that it is worth paying a fair whack for some half-decent headphones that look nice, perhaps they could be persuaded to turn their backs on cheap MP3s and seek out recordings in true high fidelity."
Just three days later, Acoustic Sounds announced that they'd launched their Super HiRez download service, becoming the first company to offer mainstream titles in Sony's promising Direct Stream Digital (DSD) format. It then came as no great surprise, when, exactly one week after Acoustic Sounds' big announcement, Sony announced their own plan to push high-resolution audio as the future of recorded music playback.
Imagine! Normal, everyday consumers can be persuaded to expect high-quality goods and servicesmaybe even high-quality recordings and playback gear. With that in mind, I wondered if PSB's M4U 2 noise-canceling headphones had introduced a new audience to the well-established speaker maker. "I think we have gotten the attention of many more young music lovers," said Paul Barton. "The audience for traditional hi-fi is small in comparison to the number of people who listen to a lot of music all day, every day. We are being noticed by this larger audience, and [this exposure] is growing around the world for PSB."
Similarly, the sleek, fashionable Momentums have expanded Sennheiser's reach. "Adding the element of style has opened the door to new customers," said Scott Houston. "But even today's hardcore audiophile will use a headphone for his or her mobile needs."
Houston is right. Were we to look closely at certain sectors of the audio marketplacespecifically, entry-level LP playback, computer audio, and, especially headphone listeningI believe we'd see shrinking gaps between audiophiles, music lovers, and the general public. These once-distinct populations are finding common ground, and intelligent audio companies are producing good-looking, high-quality productsthe kinds we want to live with, at prices we can afford. PSB, Sennheiser, and dozens of other reputable audio companies might tell you that Beats has nothing to do with their decisions to produce "lifestyle" products; that, instead, they're merely following market trends. Whatever. Beats is the market trend. We should be thankful.
For the audiophile, hipster, tech geek, music nerd, or anyone else who's simply interested in high-quality headphones that don't cost $1000, PSB's M4U 2 and Sennheiser's Momentum are two good options. You can think of them as fashion accessories that happen to sound great, or as audio accessories that happen to look great. You can even parade around in them to demonstrate how hip and fashionable you are. Maybe you're braver than I am.
Footnote 2: Sennheiser USA, 1 Enterprise Drive, Old Lyme, CT 06371. Tel: (860) 434-9190. Web: www.sennheiserusa.com.
Footnote 3: For a detailed discussion of the Momentum's industrial and acoustic design, including a full suite of measurements, see Tyll Hertsens's glowing review at www.innerfidelity.com/content/very-adult-sennheiser-momentum.